Monday, May 1, 2017
On a Wing and a Prayer and Many Billions of Dollars
We live in a world where warfare is increasingly determined by cruise missiles, ICBMs, drones (both in the air and at sea) and deeply submerged attack capacities that can serve as launch platforms. Sure, you cannot control land you cannot occupy, so ground forces and the air and sea power to land and sustain them become critical. Yet our Navy’s fleets are completely built and deployed around massive aircraft carriers, each capable of handling 65-75 aircraft (which can stretch to 90 in some configurations) – from bombers and fighters to rescue helicopters and electronic surveillance and control planes. Submarines patrol around and ahead of the carrier and various frigates, destroyers and other support ships surround the carrier and provide a missile defensive shield for that mobile air fleet.
Nuclear-powered super-carriers are incredibly expensive. Today, a new Gerald Ford Class (post-Nimitz class) carrier costs about $15 billion each (not counting the planes or the $5 billion of underlying research costs to design a new class of carriers). Cost overruns north of 20% are common. And while carriers can last decades (40-50 year expected useful life), with continuous upgrades, they define a kind of warfare that began as an accident back at the beginning of World War II. When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor took out the bulk of our naval mainstay – battleships – the aircraft carrier fleet heading to the Aleutian Islands picked up most of the slack. Of the eight battleship in harbor, the Oklahoma capsized, the Arizona exploded, the California and the West Virginia were torpedoed and settled into shallow waters with their decks above the surface, and the Nevada ran aground. The Pennsylvania was in dry dock, the Tennessee was hit hard but repaired and the Maryland lightly damaged. Carriers began to redefine naval strategy.
What many have defined as our turning point in the war against Japan, the early June 1942 Battle of Midway, featured two fleets of aircraft carriers – hundreds of miles apart – battling to a decisive victory for the Americans. The notion of enemies behind eyeshot, beyond the horizon, expanded and redefined naval warfare into the present day. Theses mobile airfields have allowed U.S. fleets to sit miles from harm’s way and launch airstrikes into the heart of war zones in the distance. While they are joined by Air Force attack aircraft deployed from Turkey, aircraft from super-carrier U.S.S. George H.W. Bush are assaulting targets in ISIS-held Syria and Iraq.
A task force built around the super-carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson has now been deployed off the Korean Peninsula, joining with Japanese forces for regional naval exercises. Now hear this: Kim Jong-Un, as you threaten to sink that group and perhaps nuke the United States itself, there is a very big naval force operating in your neighborhood. It sends a very big message.
But are big carriers, even if designed for a very long useful life, becoming large and “too easy targets” carrying an attack capacity that can be more efficiently deployed by smaller and incredibly less expenses ships? If you take out a single U.S. aircraft carrier of this size, think of the cost, the damage that would inflict on our entire Navy.
We have eleven super-carriers (70-110,000 tons, but only 10 in active service because of budget limits) in the U.S. Navy, while most nations that have carriers rely on much smaller ships (30-40,000 tons) with a smaller launch capacity. We are adding two more Ford-class carriers in the near term. Big boats!
With a crew of between 3,000 to well-over 5,000 officers and crew, staffing, and basic supplies are exceptionally costly at every level except, perhaps, fuel. While automation is reducing some of the crew requirements, carriers are hideously expensive to operate and maintain… over $4 billion a year in crew and general costs a year. They are literally small cities with services, shops and workspaces to accommodate their personnel. They spend half their time in port and half their time in active service. Add to this the cost of the aircraft that are carried on board, and depending on how to allocated the development costs, the most modern planes in our carrier fleet cost north of $200 million each (much more depending on the particular version). That would add another $10-$15+ billion per carrier.
Plus these super-carriers cannot operate alone. They are vulnerable to attack from missiles, other aircraft and submarines, so they have to travel in a very protective fleet. “A carrier strike group  (CSG) is an operational formation of the United States Navy. It is composed of roughly 7,500 personnel, an aircraft carrier, at least one cruiser, a destroyer squadronof at least two destroyers and/or frigates, and a carrier air wing of 65 to 70 aircraft. A carrier strike group also, on occasion, includes submarines, attached logistics ships and a supply ship. The carrier strike group commander operationally reports to the commander of the numbered fleet who is operationally responsible for the area of waters in which the carrier strike group is operating. So that's another 4000 men and 6-7 warships and a few support ships (fuel for the aircraft, fuel for the CSG ships, and food and parts and expendable armaments).” Quora.com.
We may have had 26 larger carriers at the height of the Cold War, but they were relatively cheap, even corrected for inflation, than the behemoths we field today… with many fewer capabilities. Yet as time progresses, we keep sinking more money into fewer vessels, making each ship that much more precious as an enemy target. Taking out one of those older carriers was not a particularly significant hit… in those days. No longer true. Without looking at the rest of the fleet, taking out a single of the new Ford-class super-carrier destroys over 4000 lives and takes out about $30 billion in hard assets.
As a president with little or no government experience seeks to build out our military capacity, exactly how is he going to deal with a debate among old-line admirals, enamored of big and beautiful, and those younger strategists favoring smaller carriers? “Some naval planners believe smaller carriers could provide much of the same capability at less cost. They envision a vessel of about 40,000 to 60,000 tons that is conventionally powered and would cost around $6 billion. Like a supercarrier, this craft would have catapults and arresting gear to allow it to launch heavier aircraft essential for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence reconnaissance, and surveillance capabilities, such as the E-2D early warning aircraft. With a smaller, but still varied air wing, a light carrier could match the breadth, if not the depth, of supercarrier capabilities.” The Cipher Brief, April 25th.
Exactly how many planes do we need to deploy in most of our expected military confrontations? And when will drones and even-more-sophisticated missiles challenge those largest carriers for relevancy? Are we ready to make that transition? Are we even willing to consider it? And since we’ve already built or substantially built three Ford-class carriers, is there a phase out? Does China’s April 25th launch of a brand new 50-plane capable carrier (to be commissioned in 2020) change our strategy?
“Peter Haynes, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, believes the light carrier should augment, rather than replace, the supercarrier. Adding light carriers would increase the major threats to an adversary – ‘not only does he have to worry about where the big carriers are, he has to worry about where the [light carriers] are because they have a long-range capability, and they can be a very flexible and adaptable platform.’
“The drawbacks of a smaller design relate to its use of conventional fuel. Paradoxically, smaller carriers are easier to find. A light carrier would require more tanker ships and this logistical tether hinders its range, and more importantly, its ability to appear and disappear as does a nuclear-powered carrier.
“To predict the aircraft carrier’s future success, we can examine what made it successful in the past. Haynes notes, ‘A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier lasts 12 presidential administrations. Essentially that is 12 different foreign policies, defense policies, and so forth. You have to stay flexible and adaptable.’ Large or small, the aircraft carrier’s place in the Navy’s future fleet structure will likely depend on its ability to deliver its greatest asset, the flexibility of its air wing. If the air wing continues to deliver irreplaceable capabilities such as long-range strike, surveillance and reconnaissance, and electronic warfare that disrupt an adversary’s operations, the carrier’s longevity will likely continue.” The Cipher Brief.
The bottom line is a mix of what is affordable, what is sustainable as artificial intelligence replaces humans in combat, and what our foreign policy priorities are that do or might require military back-up. There is a big picture analysis, a timeline/trend reality and an understanding of who in the military has a vested interest in what… and why. Oddly, while military expertise is essential in the decision-making, it is the big picture determine by a civilian political machine – not biased military players – that needs to understand and make those final determinations.
I’m Peter Dekom, and if someone thinks that just increasing the military budget is the solution without a ground-up detailed review of our expected future, they are woefully naïve and exceptionally unprepared to lead and decide.